In the previous post, here, St. Thomas Aquinas gives a resounding “NO” to the question: “Should all vices be crimes?” Catholics agree that drunkenness, gambling-away the rent money, and marital infidelity are all sins. St. Thomas would agree that such behavior is not good for the individual, for his family, nor for society in general, but unless the sinner harms another person or their property, prohibition by the state is bad. St. Thomas, instead, would limit criminal punishments to conduct that is “to the hurt of others; . . . thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

If God permits evil, can we also?

St. Thomas notes that sometimes God himself permits earthly evils which he could easily suppress:

“Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless he allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which he might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says: ‘If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.’”

Elsewhere, St. Thomas repeats this truth that suppressing vices can lead to greater evils:

“[Human law] does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous . . . Otherwise, these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.”

Saint Augustine

St. Augustine also understood the need to permit non-violent vices, because governmental suppression would only result in more evils. He noted that even though prostitution was sordid and indecent, the forcible removal of prostitutes from society would be worse than permitting them. In his letter to Macedonius (413–14 A.D.), Augustine uses the example of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (whom Jesus saved from stoning). He speaks to those zealous—but misguided—Christians who would like to see government punish every sin. He urges them to adopt Jesus’ merciful example saying, “Impious Jews yielded to his pronouncement; may pious Christians do so too.”

He also rejects the idea that human laws make bad men good:

“[The bad] are not to be described as good just because they do not sin, out of fear of such penalties. One is good not through fear of punishment, but through the love of justice. Punishment by the government is useful so that “the innocent can live in security among the unscrupulous.”

Not only does St. Augustine reject the notion that criminal punishment removes an interior disposition to evil, he goes on to assert the opposite. He writes that “prohibition increases the desire of illicit action.” This attraction to “forbidden fruit” goes back all the way to the garden of Eden and is especially enticing to less mature individuals. Teenage rebellion is a testament to this proposition.

Prohibition-caused evils

Our own society has inumerable examples of state prohibition that causes more harm than good. This can be seen in America’s failed “war” on drugs. While most agree that drug abuse is a problem in our society, it is easy to overlook the fact that the most egregious evils come not from using the drugs, but from their prohibition. This is the very thing St. Thomas and St. Augustine warned against.

Some examples of prohibition-caused evils are shocking, such as vicious gang warfare and the mass murder of law enforcement officers in Mexico. In American cities, we read about shootings at convenience stores carried out by drug dealers engaged in turf-wars. Many burglaries and robberies are committed by drug users needing money to buy expensive black-market drugs. Users die from overdoses and from impure drugs.

Methamphetamine cookers burn down their homes in meth lab explosions. Children are harmed by the poisonous chemicals needed to make the drugs. Similar evils engulfed the country throughout the period of alcohol prohibition in the twenties.

These days we never read about a Budweiser truck driver getting into a shootout with a Miller Lite salesman in the liquor aisle. Beer and wine are favored over distilled spirits, and even hard drinkers get their alcohol free of poisonous additives. Exploding moonshine stills are not much of a problem these days. Nor does the price of alcohol itself cause crime, for even a homeless wino can manage a three-buck drunk without having to burglarize homes.

Unfortunately, state power and revenue increases with every government program, providing little incentive to turn away from its failed efforts. Ironically, the problem of prohibition has been understood by the Church for thousands of years.

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